How to get broadband to a garden office

I received an email from a reader, Frank Keogh, who’s having an office built at the bottom of his garden. Frank explained that this office is actually a posh shed, built from wood, but with insulated walls, double-glazed windows, lighting and heating. However, there’s no telephone line or internet connection.

How to get broadband to a garden office

Frank has a fairly reliable broadband connection to his house, but this is more than 150ft away; he can’t pick up his home Wi-Fi network from the new office, since his broadband router is (and must remain) on the opposite side of the house. Frank is going to run his business from this office (he’s a freelance project manager), so he wanted to know the best option for receiving a reliable data connection.

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Instead of running Ethernet cabling, Frank could employ powerline Ethernet to send the data over the new mains connection

This is a case of balancing factors such as cost, speed, flexibility, reliability and ease of installation. At the top end, Frank could go for a fibre-optic leased line, which could be installed directly to the office. In fact, for belt-and-braces assurance, he’d need two leased lines from different telcos, each taking separate routes to different exchanges. This way, his office would never be without a fast data connection.

This is the type of setup you’d expect a large company to install, but it would cost somewhere north of £20,000 per annum, on top of which there’d be a hefty installation fee, given the bottom-of-the-garden location. That’s absurd, of course, given the size of Frank’s business and (I suspect) his budget.

Several cheaper options are open to Frank. First, in order to take the mains electricity supply to the office, his contractors could run an armoured or protected cable inside a duct or some trunking. If this is the case, it would seem simplest to sling in a length of Ethernet cable alongside the mains wire.

There are two problems with this, however. Having data cabling close to mains cabling over a long run – even if the data cable is shielded – means you’ll get crosstalk between the two, which can cause all kinds of problems that are difficult to diagnose.

What’s more, the builders probably wouldn’t use trunking – they’d be more likely to make a slot in the ground about seven or eight inches deep with a garden spade, then poke the armoured cable to the bottom of it. This isn’t how it should be done. The correct method for running armoured cabling directly into the ground is to dig a trench, remove any sharp stones, put a layer of sand on the bottom, run the length of cable, put more sand on top, then cover it with non-degradable tape and fill the trench with earth. You’re supposed to place buried-cable warning signs or tape above ground, too. Supposed to, yes, but it rarely happens for a mere garden shed.

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Powerline networking

Instead of running Ethernet cabling, Frank could employ powerline Ethernet to send the data over the new mains connection. This is probably a prudent choice, but he’ll need to be careful about the adapters he chooses, due to the length of the cables.

Also, many people don’t realise that HomePlug chipsets come in various flavours. The vast majority of adapters on the market use Qualcomm Atheros chipsets – although there are a few made by other manufacturers – but even these come in various guises.

Take 500Mbits/sec kit as an example, since that’s probably the most sensible buy: there’s a “value” line known as the AR7420. You’ll find many low-end products using it, since it’s more affordable and requires simpler supporting circuitry. There’s a more advanced chipset, the AR7400, which offers additional features, such as higher throughput, Gigabit LAN ports (instead of 100Mbits/sec) and greater support for adapters per network. There are newer HomePlug AV2 chipsets, too; these also come in value and full versions.

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If all of this variety isn’t enough, the higher-end versions are sometimes supplied with a front-end that supports work over the live and earth lines, as well as the live and neutral lines. I’ve written about these SmartLink adapters before, and the good folks at Solwise have produced a nice chart that shows the differences between all of the HomePlug chipsets.

Regular readers will know that I’m a fan of Solwise’s powerline networking kit. For Frank’s application, I’d thoroughly recommend a pair of the company’s PL-600AV-SMT-PIGGY adapters, but with one proviso: if any radio amateurs live nearby (spot them by the big aerials on their roofs or in their gardens), he should probably stay away from HomePlug kit, since it might generate enough RF interference to annoy them.

If this is the case, his next best option is trying to stretch his existing Wi-Fi signal down the garden to the office, which at its simplest would involve using a Wi-Fi extender or repeater. Placing one of these on the garden side of his house, near a window, should easily allow Wi-Fi signals to radiate as far as his new office. Such devices are available from a number of manufacturers; if possible, Frank should buy one made by the manufacturer of his router, to give the devices more chance of working together.

Be aware that there are two types of Wi-Fi extender. The first type – the sort we’re looking for here – detects an existing Wi-Fi signal and joins that network. It then creates what is essentially a new wireless network on a different channel – to avoid interference – while as far as possible matching the existing Wi-Fi setup. This means that, as the signal fades on the original wireless network, any client should automatically seek the new, stronger signal. In general, these devices work well.

There’s another type of Wi-Fi extender that doesn’t pick up the original Wi-Fi signal at all, but instead connects to the original wireless router via a HomePlug link. However, if HomePlug were acceptable in the first place, Frank would have been better off running that all the way from the broadband router to the new office. Whichever method he chooses, Frank should soon have a shiny, new office with great internet connectivity.

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